The air in the growing regions of Ethiopia is heavy with the scent of coffee flowers--like jasmine and orange flowers, and yet not at all like. It is here that, as legend has it, coffee was first discovered. As the story goes, in the 9th century, a drowsy goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats were perkier after nibbling on the coffee trees, and tried the cherry for himself. Caffeine was discovered, and coffee’s epic began.
While at first the people ate the coffee cherries, clearly at some point, roasting and brewing won out over chewing. Before long, religious pilgrims helped spread the magic bean to Europe, and European coffee lovers, loath to leave their favorite beverage behind, brought coffee cultivation to all points of the temperate zone. But uniquely in Ethiopia, Arabica coffee still grows wild in the forests, on the hills, and by the roadsides. Because of this, coffee cultivation here falls into four categories: forest coffee, semi-forest, garden, and plantation-grown coffee. The first three comprise almost 98% of Ethiopia’s coffee production; smallholders grow a few trees in their gardens along with other food crops, often gathering wild-growing forest and semi-forest heirloom variety cherries to augment their garden crops.
This nation, which has somehow steadfastly refused colonization, is a diverse juxtapositioning of cultural tradition and innovation. One tradition that has survived over the centuries is the Buna ceremony. Friends and neighbors gather to talk about life while the aroma of frankincense and roasting coffee fills the air. The Buna is a safe place where old and new unite, with nearly all of the country’s 82 ethnic groups partaking in similar ceremonies which last for hours as the coffee is roasted, ground, brewed, and drunk, along with bowls of popcorn and/or bread for munching as the world around them slows to a more gracious pace.
These days, coffee either directly or indirectly affects the livelihoods of approximately 15 million Ethiopians. 54% of the 700,000 smallholders live in the semi-forested areas. Coffee classification and grading began in the 1950s, and in 1957, the National Coffee Board of Ethiopia (NCBE) was established to facilitate producing, trading, and exporting Ethiopian coffee. Farmer’s cooperative organizations have been operative since the 1970s, and there are now over 4,000 co-ops that provide their farmer-members with services such as access to processing mills, fair trade prices for their coffees, financial assistance, and a means to create sustainable change in their communities. Infrastructure is often lacking, roads are marginal, and conditions are often not ideal. But the Ethiopian people are friendly, kind, and welcoming.